Massive Open Online Courses at Work

By Dave Zielinski April 7, 2014

The use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in higher education has been well-chronicled, but much less is known about how MOOCs are being used in the corporate setting.

Given recent studies of higher education MOOCs, it’s understandable that chief learning officers and training executives may at first shy away from their use. A 2013 survey of 1 million MOOC students by the University of Pennsylvania found low course engagement and high drop-out rates, with an average of just 4 percent completing courses.

Yet corporate learning professionals continue to be intrigued by the MOOC concept. In a 2013 survey of talent development executives from large companies around the world, online training designer CorpU found 94 percent had some interest in knowing more about how MOOCs can be applied to business.

Experts believe the different dynamics at play with business MOOCs, which can include more motivated learners, has the potential to make them valuable and cost-effective enhancements to internal training curricula. But as in the case with higher-education MOOCs, the key to their success rests in their design.


MOOCs are an important part of the training strategy at AT&T, said Scott Smith, senior vice president of human resources. In 2013 AT&T partnered with MOOC provider Udacity Inc. and Georgia Tech University to create one of the first accredited degree programs using the MOOC teaching model.

More than 200 AT&T employees have been accepted into the online master’s degree program in computer science, Smith said, with their tuition “significantly less expensive” than that for an on-campus master’s degree. All tuition is reimbursed by the company. AT&T employees also can take non-degree certification programs offered by Udacity in the MOOC format.

As AT&T’s business evolves to include more wireless, cloud-based products and services, Smith said the company needs more highly skilled software and network engineers to support the change. MOOCs are an effective way to deliver cutting-edge knowledge in those areas, he said.

“The MOOCs are a complement to the training we deliver internally, and they enable employees to access content 24/7 in ways that fit their work schedules and lifestyles,” Smith said. “The format gives us a way to provide additional learning that in some cases may be too expensive to do internally, or when we may not have the instructors or content that a Georgia Tech or Udacity can offer.”

Drop-Out Rates a Non-Issue?

The drop-out rates that have plagued some higher-education MOOCs may not pose the same concern for business MOOCs, experts said.

“I don’t think completion rates are an issue outside of higher education,” said Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York-based company that provides executive education to HR leaders. “The issue in the workplace is whether employees are able to take something from a MOOC that helps them do their jobs better or answers a pressing question. That means they don’t always need to go through an entire training course start to finish.”

Elliott Masie, head of The Masie Center, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., think tank focused on how organizations can support workforce learning, said MOOCs intrigue corporate learning leaders mainly for the first letter in the acronym.

“They are very interested in getting training to the masses cost-effectively,” Masie said. “They are agnostic to the open or free part of it, are fine with doing it online, but, for most, ‘course’ isn’t their operative word. If you called them Massive Open Online Content, even more would be interested.”

As an incentive for employees to complete MOOCs that are optional, some companies provide certificates. Smith said one carrot for AT&T employees to complete MOOCs in data science are certifications or “badges” they can place on their corporate talent profiles, a kind of internal resume.

At Yahoo, software engineers are given certificates for completing MOOC provider Coursera’s “signature track” technical training programs, Meister said. They’re also reimbursed for the MOOCs’ small fee.

Designing MOOCs for Business

The use of MOOCs in business was deemed so promising that CorpU held a summit on the topic at the 2013 World Economic Forum. What emerged from that meeting was a “college-employer collaborative” featuring 50 large companies. The initiative is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the purpose of creating new MOOC models for business, said Alan Todd, CEO of CorpU.

The focus is on bringing the best instruction from academia in leadership development and STEM skills—science, technology, engineering and math—to the workplace, Todd said. One of the collaborative’s goals is to close the gap between critical STEM skills needed by their workforces and the skills new college graduates have.

To improve learning outcomes, the collaborative is seeking to create MOOCs built on the EPIC acronym: Expert-led, Problem-based, Integrated with real work using a connected learning model, or Collaborative social learning.

“Traditional MOOCs often don’t get enough peer-to-expert interaction, they’re not integrated with real work challenges, and they rarely use enough collaborative pedagogy,” Todd said. That’s because they’re built to solve the higher-education problem of increasing access and affordability of learning rather than solving a business problem, he said.

Masie believes a MOOC model pioneered by Open University in the United Kingdom also holds promise for companies. “These are MOOCs where the assessment and collaboration are done inside a company’s walls,” Masie said. “You might be in a MOOC on project management skills with 10,000 students, but the dialogue and peer collaboration around it is only happening behind a firewall with the 40 people from your company taking the course.”

Experts believe business MOOCs will continue to morph as companies take the best design elements from higher-education MOOCs and apply their own innovations to the model.

“The discussion we’re having now about MOOCs is entirely different than the discussion we’ll be having in two years,” Meister said. “By then, companies will have been inspired by MOOCs to create new ways to train their employees or customers. That’s the opportunity. How do you take the best design features of higher education MOOCs and create a new type of MOOC for the organization?”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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